How to Do a Close Reading: Writing Literary Analysis Essays

Once high school students make the leap to the college academic environment, they may be faced with terms that aren’t completely clear to them. Close readings seem to be one of these pesky concepts, as it’s easy to fall into summarizing a text without “reading closely,” as it were.

Close readings sound far more difficult than they are. Sometimes referred to as literary analysis (though there are many variations of literary analysis), close reading essays are actually easier to write than straight-up research papers because they normally only require a primary text. Depending on the class and professor, literary research essays usually require at least two or three secondary sources. So, close reading papers should be approached with an optimistic attitude.

What is a Close Reading?

Simply put, a close reading is exactly what it sounds like. Professors aren’t looking for summary; on the contrary, most professors will cringe if presented with a summary. Close readings (especially in lower level college composition classes) rarely demand that students write more than 5 to 10 pages, usually less.

Given the name, close readings mean that the student should be looking at a very small portion of a text, generally. Pick a paragraph, a page, a chapter; it is very unusual for a 101 or 102 English professor to ask for more than that, as they want to see a student’s ability to completely tear apart a passage. That is a close reading in a nutshell: the tearing apart of a passage or a small section.

Pick an Angle for Literary Analysis

There are many facets of literature to focus on while writing a close reading paper. They tend to be buzzwords of sorts around English classes: themes, imagery, tropes, language, metaphor, tone, etc. While it may be tempting to try and tackle several of these to fill out a few extra pages, this approach will often lead to a messy essay.


Pick a single angle. For instance, if a class requires a student to perform a close reading on a poem, read it several times over. If the assignment is a passage from a book or a play, do the same. Close readings can lead students into a type of hypnosis, where the meaning only arises once it is burned into the memory. Only by reading a passage or poem many times can students hope to write a good close reading paper.

Once the passage is burned into the brain, look for patterns. Are there any recurring images? Maybe the author uses seashells to describe a number of things; if so, what does that mean? Or perhaps there is a recurring usage of alliteration in the text; what does this do to the tone of the piece? What is the tone of the piece? Again, it is best to only focus on one aspect of a passage, unless it is a very short passage. If this is the case, the professor will likely expect a broader breakdown.

Close readings sound intimidating. However, they can be a student’s best friend. Although close reading papers can take a little bit of initial investment of reading and re-reading, once the passage is digested, ideas should flow. Don’t be intimidated by these assignments.